As Canada waits for the Harper government to lay out its national digital economy strategy, the chairman of the U.S. telecommunications regulator says his agency is preparing to release more wireless spectrum to ensure the country maintains leadership in mobile technology.

“We are in a global bandwidth race,” Julius Genachowski of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said in a speech last week. “And that must spur us to keep the pedal to the floor.”

Industry Canada has promised so far to auction spectrum in 2013 and 2014, but its plans are nowhere near as ambitious or detailed as the Americans.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis says Ottawa’s digital strategy will be announced by the end of the year.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan – which has been adopted by President Barak Obama as government policy–calls for freeing up of 300 MHz of licensed and unlicensed spectrum by 2015 and 500 MHz by 2020. The plan aims to make 4G wireless service available to 98 per cent of all Americans by 2016.
But a Canadian industry analyst says as a matter of policy we shouldn’t move faster than the Americans in certain telecom areas. “We’ve had problems in the past when Canada has tried to establish its own guidelines for spectrum use, where the U.S. didn’t use the same frequencies for the same purpose,” Mark Goldberg said in an interview.

“We found there were very few manufacturers who were willing to build devices that were compatible with a Canada-only spectrum plan.”

In fact, he said official Industry Canada policy is consulting with the Americans and then “fast following” U.S. spectrum allocation.

That makes sense, he said, considering handset makers develop first for the much larger U.S. market.

Still, he added, the Americans held their auction for spectrum in the treasured 700 MHz band in 2008 — valuable for its efficiency for LTE smart phones — while ours will only be in 2013.

[On the other hand U.S. carriers didn’t start to use that spectrum until the end of 2010.

But to illustrate Goldberg’s point, here’s an example: It was only earlier this year that the U.S. clarified its plans for spectrum use in the 700 MHz D-block for a national public safety wireless network for emergency responders. Soon after Industry Canada released its own plan.]  

Genachowski’s speech not only hits on the U.S. digital strategy, but also the wireless industry’s constant demand for more spectrum around the world.

This has become more insistent as smart phones are able to increasingly deal with faster data speeds. In turn users are surfing and using video on handsets at a rate not anticipated by regulators.

Asked to comment on Genachowski’s speech, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which represents most of the country’s wireless carriers, said Industry Canada’s decisions on upcoming 700 MHz
and 2500 MHz spectrum availability “are certainly a step in the right
direction and welcomed by the industry.

“However, CWTA continues to advocate for the release of additional spectrum. Mobile data usage in Canada ­ and around the world ­ continues to surge … [W]e need Industry Canada to provide long-term spectrum planning in order for carriers to continue to be able to meet Canadians’ demand for wireless services in the decades to come.”

On the other hand Iain Grant, managing director of SeaBoard Group, a Montreal-based telecom consultancy, suggested there’s no rush.

The fact that American carriers AT&T and Verizon appear to think that they have sufficient spectrum before the FCC makes more changes, and the fact that Canadian carriers Bell Mobility and Rogers Communications already have far more spectral inventory than either Verizon or AT&T suggests that Industry Canada does not have a lot of pressure to act quickly,” he wrote in an email.
Some have suggested the FCC is using spectral shortage war cry to extend the regulator’s mandates,” Grant added.
[The FCC has full control over spectrum in the U.S., subject to Congressional review. On the other hand here Industry Canada hold spectrum as well as the timing and the rules of auctions, while the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is the telecom regulator.]

The key mission for Industry Canada, he wrote, is to ensure that the market sustains more
competition, particularly in the upcoming 700 MHz auction.

In his speech Genachowski said the FCC expects the first of a series of U.S. spectrum auctions – in the so-called AWS-2 H-block – will be held next year. The revenue generated will serve as a down-payment on funding a nationwide public safety network and to reduce the U.S. federal deficit. 

Later this year the FCC will finish removing what Genachowski called outdated rules and restrictions on 70 MHz of spectrum. This includes 40 megahertz of mobile satellite spectrum that he expects the commission will repurpose for land-based mobile use, and 30 megahertz in the Wireless Communications Service band that is now poised to be used for LTE service.  

The FCC is also working to release portions of the mobile satellite spectrum in the L- and BIG LEO bands for terrestrial service.

Genachowski also noted that Congress recently adopted one of the National Broadband Plan’s “most groundbreaking” recommendations giving the FCC the power to conduct incentive auctions that will see TV broadcasters submit bids to hand over spectrum in the 600 MHz band, which would be re-auctioned to wireless carriers.

The FCC hopes to hold the world’s first incentive auction in 2014.

The U.S. regulator is also looking at ways to enable commercial wireless carriers to share spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band used by military radar systems.

So he concluded, with 75 MHz from traditional auctions, 70 MHz from removing regulatory barriers, 100 MHz from dynamic sharing, and significant spectrum from incentive auctions, reallocations of government spectrum, and white spaces, the FCC is on track to exceed its 300 MHz target by 2015.

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